may/June 2005

more feature articles:

Tresses and Wonder: Ruby Osorio‚s Girl Stories
by Jeffrey Hughes

Julie Kahn: The Impresario

By Joel Weinstein

Is Julie Kahn an artist or an executive producer? A photographer and video maker or an analysis-savvy cottage industry C.E.O.? Social engineer cum New Age vibe-master or art activist probing social and psychological issues through splendid, intricate artifacts?

Kahn has done many things in her life. She once sat behind a desk at the investment banking firm Morgan Stanley. She has since managed to bring that experience to bear in the very different circumstances of her present surroundings, the art world. When Art Basel Miami Beach descended on south Florida two years ago, for example, she undertook a complex production which turned into one of the more original, exciting local works in the shadow of that gargantuan international art fair: a deck of art world personality trading cards which were sold around town by scantily clad cigarette girls. If the cards slipped into the public realm without much fanfare, they quickly stirred up a flurry of collecting and bartering.

Julie Kahn, Kahn Card (from OPEN SEASON miami), 2002, one of 88 trading cards, 4/2 Kraft stock, 2.5 x 3.5 inches
(courtesy of the artist)

Kahn is now the impresario behind Swamp Cabbage: Cracker Culture in a Fast Food Nation, a forthcoming exhibition which examines survival-mode living in rural Florida (Locust Projects, Miami; May 14ųJune 29, 2005). Swamp Cabbage will feature photographs of alligators, big-tired pickup trucks, and other classic Floridiana; two hunting blinds with video loops of outback gentry stalking prey and cracking whips; a food-tasting with such delicacies as roast squirrel with rice and beans and wild boar prosciutto; and, for the grand finale, a coleslaw wrestling match.

Although Kahn is a Miami native, this story begins, more or less, during her undergraduate days at Harvard University when she found herself working summer jobs at places like Ford Motor Company and Rockwell International. It follows a haphazard trajectory that brought her to Japan, where she taught high school English, then back to the U.S. for her stint at Morgan Stanley. This was, as she puts it, the go-go late 1980s and early ‚90s. She liked the furious pace and the people she met, but the good times petered out and she drifted back to Harvard, to the business school this time, to get her M.B.A.

During her years of immersion in corporate culture, there were also stretches on the creative side. As an undergraduate at Harvard, she helped produce the legendary drag comedy review, Hasty Pudding, and in the midst of her graduate school program she spent a memorable summer in Los Angeles scouting locations for an independent filmmaker.

„We‚d scope out these bizarre seafood cold-storage facilities with huge tunas being wheeled around and thrown into buckets,š she remembers fondly. „It was really crazy to be in LA and see that side of it.š

Once out of graduate school, Kahn decided she‚d had enough of the conventional business world and went to work in A and R (artists and repertoire) for Columbia Records, which meant caretaking, and sometimes firing, bands that the label had signed to contracts. After three increasingly cantankerous years of club life, she leapt at the chance to return to Miami when a friend offered her an administrative position with the city‚s premiere performing arts organization, Miami Light Project.

Kahn spent her first several years in Miami fitfully showing photographs and doing installations at out-of-the-way spaces like the venerable and distinctly non-commercial Brook Dorsch Gallery. The Wynwood neighborhood home of Dorsch Gallery is quickly becoming the vogue location for commercial galleries and art collectors‚ warehouse-showcases. Not long ago, however, it was a dingy ghost-town of crackhouses and shady chop shops, and one of Kahn‚s early works took place in a scabrous dwelling adjacent to the gallery, a recently evacuated crackhouse whose traces of squalor were kept intact for her photo-installation.

Julie Kahn, Grain Mandala (from Got Milk?), 2001, flax, corn, wheat, rice, organic blue corn flakes, shredded wheat, kix, crispix, candles, diameter: 12 feet (courtesy of the artist)

In 2001, she did Got Milk?, a multifaceted work at Dorsch centered on breakfast cereal, which involved, among other things, a floor mandala made of earth-toned grains; shelves of bottles brimming with caloric, gaudy breakfast fixings like Lucky Charms and Fruit Loops; a cereal tasting presided over by Kahn‚s most cheerful friends; and video-taped interviews with opening-night attendees about cherished cereal memories.

Got Milk? provided a template for Kahn‚s subsequent endeavors: earnest polling of community members as groundwork, an examination of the data, diligent manufacture, and product launch as elaborate soirée-performance.

Kahn‚s deck of trading cards, OPEN SEASON Miami, 2002, was, in many ways, the apogee of this research-and-development oriented method. Nonetheless, she calibrated her project to be both a parody of Art Basel‚s grubby-mindedness toward local artists and a poultice for the aggravation of so many lordly outsiders descending on the city. She bought pizza for friends one nightųher focus groupųand grilled them about their art world contacts. This got her a list of a hundred artists, curators, gallery owners, museum trustees, collectors, arts administrators, and „scenestersš to whom she emailed questionnaires with tidbits like, „What do you taste like?š „What is your biggest turn-on?š and „What does the M in Miami stand for?š

Julie Kahn, Cooper Card (from OPEN SEASON miami), 2002, one of 88 trading cards, 4/2 Kraft stock, 2.5 x 3.5 inches (courtesy of the artist)

Eighty-eight people responded, sending along driver‚s license photos, headshots, and pictures of themselves at work, as Kahn requested. Most had fun with their answersų„Guilty pleasure: I don‚t answer my phone,š „Best recipe: Takeout menušųand some got quite frisky with their images. Kahn then digitally transformed the raw data into trading cards reminiscent of the Topps baseball cards so popular in the 1950s, and she had them printed and packagedųwith gum!ųby those very Topps people. As Art Basel rolled around, the cigarette girls went to work. Trading parties became a lively semi-secret, mixing locals with fortunate out-of-towners in the know.

Kahn‚s Swamp Cabbage is, perhaps, the most refined permutation so far of her corporate background. Her advisory committee for this project consists of actual folk-life professionals since Swamp Cabbage focuses on Florida crackersųindividuals who have lived on the land for generations and derive their sustenance by hunting, growing and raising their own food, and so forthųa population of serious interest to sociologists and other academics. Kahn has relocated to central Florida‚s still-rural Merritt Island to do her research, which has embroiled her in wild boar hunts and a cattle drive, lawn-mower races and school-bus competitions, and a visit to an alligator slaughter house.

If, in typical Kahn fashion, grant applications got the project started, chance has played the biggest role in giving it form. A series of opportune meetings allowed her to begin making important distinctions. As authenticity has always been at the heart of her approach, she turned to the grittier, more unusual aspects of cracker culture, for example, rather than to its readily accessible commercial side, represented by cracker reenactors who don rustic outfits and do paid performances.

Julie Kahn, Big Belly Camp (Turkey, Rufus & Ro-Ro), 2005, c-print, 40 x 50 inches (courtesy of the artist)

What appears at Locust Projects will depend on all that Kahn has unearthed in her bucolic remoteness, supplemented by the purely aesthetic considerations any fastidious artist brings to an exhibition. Certainly it will include wild critters dressed as dinner, pristine images of man, beast, and implement, and, most important of all, milling crowds of city folks marveling at how good and strange it all looks, and debating what it means.

Miami writer Joel Weinstein covers visual art for various national and international magazines. His feature on Tania Bruguera‚s public intervention, Autobiografía, was published the March-April 2005 issue of ART PAPERS.


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